Austin Pettis filling important niche

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- As the longest tenured of the St. Louis Rams' running backs and receivers, Austin Pettis is in just his third season in the NFL.

That doesn’t exactly make him a grizzled veteran. It does, however, make him the receiver with the most knowledge of the offense, and the one quarterback Sam Bradford can lean on in the most important of situations.

“You can’t say enough good things about Austin Pettis,” Bradford said. “I’ve said it since OTA’s, I think he’s one of our most dependable. He’s so smart; you can put him all over the field. He knows every route that everyone’s supposed to run, and I can trust him, because I know that he’s going to see things the right way and he’s going to be in the right spot.”

Pettis isn’t going to be confused for a Calvin Johnson or Dez Bryant anytime soon, but what he has done is find a role for himself, embraced it and excelled in it the first five games of the season.

In those contests, Pettis has 22 catches for 222 yards, a modest total on the surface, but a little deeper dig reveals a young receiver on a team full of them who is finding his niche.

That niche is pretty simple, when Bradford and the Rams need to move the chains, it’s Pettis they look to first. When they need to put the ball in the end zone, it’s Pettis who finds a way to get it done.

Of Pettis’ 22 catches, 14 have gone for first downs and four more have gone for touchdowns. That means 81 percent of Pettis’ catches are either moving the chains or putting points on the board.

Over the past two seasons, Pettis has 52 catches with 38 of them going for a first down or touchdown.

“That’s definitely something that I kind of pride myself in my career playing football,” Pettis said. “I really enjoy those clutch situations, and I kind of just want to be that guy who makes a play for the team.”

Pettis began flashing signs of taking on that role in the second half of the 2012 season, coming up with an important touchdown catch at San Francisco and making a difficult grab on a ball thrown behind him to keep the game-winning drive going in Buffalo.

As the rest of the Rams’ receivers continue to search for defined roles of their own, Pettis’ reliability has provided some semblance of consistency in an offense without much. He has just one drop this year according to ESPN Stats & Information.

In Sunday’s win against Jacksonville, Pettis again proved to be the right guy at the right time for Bradford. On third-and-goal at Jacksonville’s 4, Pettis ran a quick out and hauled in a pass from Bradford for a touchdown with 27 seconds to go in the half.

After the Jaguars pulled within one score in the fourth quarter, Pettis hauled in a 31-yard touchdown along the right sideline on a perfectly placed pass from Bradford to provide the final margin. Another of his catches resulted in a first down.

“You’ve got to have that trust with a wide receiver, a tight end, a back in order to turn things loose,” Bradford said. “I trust those guys to go make plays, but I would say right now with AP, he’s doing so many things so well that I really trust him. I think it showed up today, when we needed to make a play I went to AP and he made a tough catch, and it was a really, really big play for us.”

Before the season, many wondered if Brian Quick was on the verge of overtaking Pettis as a starter opposite Chris Givens. Pettis had a strong spring, but didn’t get much done during training camp or the preseason.

Five weeks later, Pettis is clearly the team’s most consistent option in the passing game, particularly at the moments that matter most. It’s unlikely he’ll ever be the type to post 100-yard games on a regular basis or catch short passes and turn them into touchdowns (he has just 22 yards after the catch this season), but there’s nothing wrong with finding a spot and making it your own.

On an offense in need of more players settling into jobs of their own, others would be well served to take their cues from the Rams’ most experienced wideout.